When it comes to solving problems, improving performance or expanding operations at water plants, a robust pilot program can save millions of dollars over time. Unfortunately, with all of the competing challenges of delivering high quality water and maintaining budgets most utilities find it challenging to design, build or operate a successful pilot test. Nonetheless, understanding what a pilot campaign is and what it consists of can help facilities effectively reap the rewards of pilot testing through third-party consultants or specialist vendors.
Understanding Pilot Testing
A pilot test is a continuous treatability test usually in the 10 gpm flow range. It can be used to evaluate the performance of various design criteria in achieving unit process treatment goals. Design criteria or unit processes may change during testing; the goal is to collect data over a range of design criteria so that decisions can be made for the subsequent project phase.
A complete piloting campaign can typically be broken down into three phases – planning, operations and reporting – and all three are vital to accomplish the objectives. Lack of foresight during the planning phase could render the testing inadequate or incomplete for your goals, and improper or insufficient reporting could fail to justify your proposed implementations.
As with most anything, planning is a key first step. And the first steps of planning involve understanding exactly what it is you want to accomplish. In most cases, it starts with a question: what am I trying to improve?
Whether it’s to improve water quality, reduce maintenance, improve operations or perhaps to meet new regulations, a pilot campaign starts with understanding the fundamental objective. With a clear objective, you can build out a testing pilot that will ultimately quantify the financial benefit of the desired improvement.
Having clearly stated why you need to test (your objective), it’s time to formulate a plan that answers the remaining questions of who, what, where and how. The answers to these questions will determine the pilot design, the testing schedule, sampling and staffing plans, as well as the safety plan.
It’s necessary to consider that utilities commonly have multiple stakeholders, and the planning process must account for these. It’s important to recognize what information will be important for each of these stakeholders. Typically, these stakeholders can include:
- Regulators – (How much data will they need to approve your new idea?)
- Managers/ Board of Directors – (What financial backup will they need to approve your new idea?)
- Design Engineers – (What data will they need to turn the idea into a reality?)
- Public Relations – (Is there an opportunity to use the pilot to communicate a larger message to the public?)
Thorough planning is the foundation for any process testing. Tailor your planning efforts to your specific pilot needs. For instance, for a small Utility with limited resources, developing a simple filter loading or coagulation study in-house is possible. For a full treatment train pilot with multiple unit processes and stringent regulatory and laboratory needs facilities can benefit from an experienced consultant or third-party vendor – one that also understands the practical and particular elements of turning the plan into action. Once the plan is finally in place, it’s time to move into the operations portion of the process.
With a solid plan in place, the natural next step is to carry out the plan. That usually means the arrival and installation of testing equipment. Of course, a good plan will already have determined the proper equipment needed, as well as necessary site requirements. Quality vendors will provide expert insight into the proper equipment selection and installation. The equipment must be appropriate for extracting the data you need from the pilot.
Once equipment is in place and testing is ready to begin, it’s important to think about staffing and laboratory needs throughout the process. It’s also important to identify opportunities for adjusting variables throughout the testing phase. It’s not a bad idea to incorporate time to test blue sky ideas. That said, it’s also critical to remember that you’ve spent a lot of time developing a plan, so stick to that plan in order to accomplish your stated objectives.
Operating a pilot system can be a dynamic and challenging experience, but also extremely enlightening and enjoyable once you start seeing the results. And once you have those results, it’s important to convey them effectively.
It’s often said that you can’t improve what you can’t measure, and the point of your testing is to quantify the financial benefits of process changes. That means accurate and informative charts, graphics and figures. All the data in the world isn’t valuable if it isn’t presented in a format that tells the story and elicits action.
An easy mistake to make is not tailoring that data to its proper audience. Remember that you identified multiple stakeholders during the planning process. These different stakeholders will have different needs and perspectives for the data. A regulator, for example, will have different interests in your results than a board member, who will have different uses for the data than the PR department.
It’s also worth considering how your testing results could have an impact beyond your facility or utility. The findings could be noteworthy to the wider water community. If you believe they might be, look at options for distributing and publishing your results for others to see.
Pilot testing can identify process changes that improve operations, quality, compliance or all of these – and can save money over the long term by recognizing process changes that don’t work before putting them into costly full-scale implementation.
In order for a pilot campaign to be effective and worthwhile, it must be properly planned, carried out, and its results must be shared with key stakeholders. At its best pilot testing lands at the intersection of research, design and operations pulling on all three thought areas to deliver meaningful results. Building a good pilot campaign with the right industry experts can make the difference between testing and successful testing.